September 21, 2014

Test Spins: Dirty Knobs — The Hermit Seeks the Stillness

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Odds are you’ve never heard of Dirty Knobs (stage name of ambient producer Zac Bentz), and that’s completely okay. Nestled deep in the bowels of Bandcamp, releasing albums that are both sonically challenging and terribly time-consuming, the Duluth native is understandably obscure. This obscurity, however, while being explainable, is not justifiable. Bentz’s last record — the eight-hour Field Recordings from the Edge of Hell — was one of the great works of 2011. Seeing as one third of a day’s worth of repetitive ambient doom droning is hard to stomach for even the most devout music nerd, however, it was hardly (if at all) recognized by the masses. Yet, instead of taking the rational step toward palatability following Field Recordings, Bentz decided to valiantly continue eschewing popularity in any form and reward the few listeners who could handle his aural bombardments with the musically subdued yet even more audaciously lengthy The Hermit Seeks the Stillness, which was released on September 18.

Surely, The Hermit Seeks the Stillness will meet the same popular fate as Field Recordings. Simply put, there’s not really a market for 12 hours of devilish sonic indulgences which, while enthralling, can be best described as relaxation music for Satan himself. Just because this album won’t sell too many copies, though, doesn’t mean that it’s not worth talking about. It’s really a marvelous accomplishment — as good as, if not better than, Field Recordings — and my goal, in the next few hundred words, is to convince you to splurge (for the low, low price of $1) on The Hermit Seeks the Stillness and support one of the most daring composers of the modern day.

Admittedly, it’s hard to wrap your head around music like this. From the get-go, it’s challenging. The opening track, “The Hermit,” starts off with what sounds like the muffled groans and screams of an unseen beast emerging from a dark, daunting forest. As those unsettling noises subside, they’re replaced with an untouchable, wind-like drone and intermittent swirls of confused, guttural abrasions. The natural, knee-jerk reaction of the average listener at this point would be to turn off these sounds in revulsion. But, if you’ve come this far, I urge you to move your hand away from the pause button, assume a recumbent position, close your eyes and attempt to delve into the music. If you succeed, you’ll realize that this track, along with all of the others, is not a pedantic compilation of random, repulsive sounds, but a deliberate sonic pathway leading toward meditative absolution. Allow yourself to follow these dirges where they may take you and you’ll be rewarded with a wholly unique musical experience.

Each track has a different effect, but all lead to a similar psychical location. “The Pier Mourns the Wreck” brings you to float in a milky void of unsure contentment. “Seven Hands Palms Down” guides you reassuringly down an unfamiliar, terrifying road, only to leave you alone to find your way back to sanity. “The Empty Hub,” one of the least accessible tracks, is an unrelenting claustrophobic assault on your psyche, which grasps you tightly from the beginning until a lugubrious, painstaking release at the end. “A Table A Vase A Struggling Flower A Closed Window” is a rare instance of beauty; it is a welcomed, haunting reprieve from the several preceding hours of metaphysical ugliness. “Men Found in Circles” washes you in a wave of sound, your only connection to reality being a vague, foreboding series of clicks and clacks. “The Outstretched Arm of A Woman Dimmed” juxtaposes droning chords that yearn for beauty with unrecognizable, horrifying sounds, bringing allure and hideousness into the same realm to battle for supremacy. The result is the most dynamic track on the record, which creates a painful, yet strangely reassuring, dissonance. “He Darkles He Tincs” is doomful relaxation music. “Fifty-Five views of the Boglands” evokes the beauty of nature as it slowly disintegrates and is destroyed. “Undying Tumblenaut” is huge and Wagnerian, evoking in the listener a sense of power and necessity. The apprehensive, church-like “The Glory and the Gegenschein” seems, in context, like a praise for what is to come, namely the airy, fittingly titled “The Stillness,” which closes the album as the most effectively relaxing, yet unsettlingly unclassifiable track.

The record as a whole transcends classification. It is a wholly unique piece of work, whose message and purpose can possibly be best encapsulated in the words of Bentz himself:

“These songs are meant to be…not background music exactly. But something to change the environment around the listener. A sort of sideways transportation to artificially slow time, just as those moments of stillness are ultimately artificial. These songs are not meant to capture those moments, but to instead provide a space for those moments to be captured.”

My only hope, after hearing this record, is that Bentz will continue to capture these essential moments in his future work.